Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Turtle Theory of Diversity

Excellent article about a new study from Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, challenging much of the conventional wisdom regarding how diversity functions in communities. Excerpt:

In documenting that hunkering down, Putnam challenged the two dominant schools of thought on ethnic and racial diversity, the "contact" theory and the "conflict" theory. Under the contact theory, more time spent with those of other backgrounds leads to greater understanding and harmony between groups. Under the conflict theory, that proximity produces tension and discord.

Putnam's findings reject both theories. In more diverse communities, he says, there were neither great bonds formed across group lines nor heightened ethnic tensions, but a general civic malaise. And in perhaps the most surprising result of all, levels of trust were not only lower between groups in more diverse settings, but even among members of the same group.

"Diversity, at least in the short run," he writes, "seems to bring out the turtle in all of us."

Well worth the read. Don't have much to say about it, but a lot to mull over. And I definitely appreciate both Putnam and the article's acknowledgement of the need to balance objective research with civic engagement.


Eli said...

good article. I've read before that one reason for the success of the social-welfare state in scandinavian countries is based on relative racial homogeneity.

But despite all the X's Putnam says he controlled for, I'd like to see the data comparing diverse poor communities vs. diverse rich ones -- and I wonder about the sample size for the latter.

Nevertheless, the study, while disappointing to the generally-shared hopes for a happy multicultural society, does not seem that surprising, as diverse communities are more likely to be economically insecure ones, and as our politics and media have played up racially-coded fears of crime for a long time now.

An interesting question would be to see if the same types of distrust, etc., held up for communities of diverse Europeans immigrants in the early parts of the century and whether the same "diverse" communities today share the same features. Because I suspect racial tolerance and trust is something that has to be built over time, or at least racial difference made less salient over generations. That seems to be Putnam's view later in the article.

No one said living together was supposed to be easy...

Eli said...

here is a good response to the release of the Putnam study from a "social change" perspective:


Ritik Dholakia said...

Thanks for the Open Left post, Eli, a good perspective. My take is pretty simple - even if Putnam's analysis of the data proves good, it does nothing to nullify the goal and the social benefit of greater diversity. It may simply signal that fostering communities that are both diverse and harmonious may prove to be more difficult. But that is not a basis for negating a moral and social good. I think we're probably on the same page on that count.